An essay about the group project entitled Memory. Imprints of Destruction and Rebellion of Life showcasing works of Jaka Babnik, Masaki Hirano and Bojan Radovič whcih was premiered on 26 and 27 May 2017 at DUM Project Space in Ljubljana (co-production of House of Photography Slovenia, Sektor Institute, Rostfrei Publishing).
The group exhibition entitled Memory. Imprints of Destruction and Rebellion of Life focuses on the phenomenon of memory that is being kept in the genetic code of all living creatures – also trees. Trees (can) live for centuries, much longer than humans, and therefore they often end up being silent witnesses of historical events. The memory of trees is being stored in their bodily structure, however, it is impossible to read it and interpret it with our means. Their memory is ambivalent in the same way as an image without given context.
The works of three artists refer to indelible traces that the humankind has left in its immediate surroundings. They testify on the fragility and pettiness of humans compared to grandiose nature, as well as on humans’ blindness and addiction to their supremacy on the planet. But trees are mysterious beings and the humankind does not know much about them despite the immense scientific and technological development. Therefore it is relevant to pose this question: can trees record and store their memories like they leave traces of their growth in the concentric circles of their trunks? And if they do, how would it be possible to read their memories from their internal structure? Three artists, Jaka Babnik, Masaki Hirano and Bojan Radovič, touch on these issues from profoundly different perspectives while they also question the very nature of photographic medium. They utilise its unconventional principles, far away from classic photographic representation, and hence their images pose more questions than they offer clear answers.
In the series of photographs entitled Heroes of My Time Jaka Babnik follows the principles of aftermath photography in order to document places where some of the most resounding, groundbreaking and unexplained events that still influence the socio-political reality in Slovenia nowadays have taken place in the past. The artist seeks for specific trees that witnessed covert and concealed events, trees that „saw“ what most of the public did not see. Therefore he focuses on the places with symbolic significance which already fell into oblivion or which were exploited for different purposes or simply relegated from public discourse. Seemingly quite ordinary places are understood entirely differently once their broader context is revealed, and so the photographer, with his historic obsession and forensic preciseness, creates topography that opens up questions about the relativity of historical and media discourses, and about the ease of their modifications through time. Among the images are the apple trees that witnessed the mass murder of prisoners, killed by the Nazis in Frankolovo, Slovenia, in the spring of 1945, what was later canonised in local history and mythology, and the pine trees that saw still inadequately clarified assassination of presidential candidate Ivan Kramberger in 1992, a Slovenian version of JFK. There is also a pear tree in front of which the arrest of Milan Smolnikar took place in Depala vas near Ljubljana, the affair that hinted on the attempt of coup d’etat in 1992 and ousted the defence minister Janez Janša. Beside their immediate political context Babnik’s images furthermore raise question about the nature of photographic medium, its production, presentation and distribution.
The life-size photograph of the cross section of a stump depicting more 250 year-old felled tree, taken by Japanese photographer Masaki Hirano, serves as a memory of thousands and thousands of stumps left in the silence of devastated Tasmanian primeval forest. The image that documents the cross-section of a stump, in which one is able to recognise different textures, tissues and cells, showcases the tragedy of endlessly devastated landscape that is a consequence of capitalist greed. Tasmania is an island on the south coast of Australian continent. This area contains wonderful primeval forests which have been, however, systematically destroyed by logging and exporting the woods to Japan. The logging is slowly devastating this ancient Tasmanian forest while the public has no knowledge about it; instead the media spread the discourse about „nature friendly“ afforestation. Hirano points out monopolistic capitalist greed as well as cosmetic measures of afforestation which follow the neoliberal devastation. Each stump that was photographed shows life cycle that has already been concluded and therefore the photograph is more than only aesthetic inscription – it is also the form of social responsibility. The photography of Hirano cannot stop the blast of monopolistic destructive lust, however, it can prove that it is capable of reflection and the autonomy of its own message. The photographer emphasises the collision between pure aesthetic photography and us, the viewers. However, the audience is compromised because its knowledge about the ecological catastrophe. Despite the perfectionism photography is not crucial for the photographic effect that shows the viewer’s relationship with entire situation.
In a very metaphorical and abstract way one can perceive the work entitled Hibakujumoku by Bojan Radovič who explores structures and textures of the trees. With an improvised device he scanned the trunks of the trees in the city of Hiroshima, the ones, that are old enough to experience and survive devastating impact of the nuclear bomb. The first detonation of the atomic bomb took place here on 6 August 1945 when the bomb from the American aircraft destroyed (nearly all) life in the city. However, the flora and fauna are much more durable than it seems as some of the plants, animals as well as people – despite the long-term consequences – survived the devastating explosion. With imprints of the trunks Radovič metaphorically scans the historical memory of these trees. Moreover, he questions the catastrophic power that is being held in the hands of the humankind. After the detonation of the first bomb in Hiroshima and up until now, more than 2100 similar – often much more powerful – nuclear bombs were detonated across the globe. However, beside their socio-political context the photographs reflect classical dilemma of photography that was once perceived as the most objective medium that never lies. Radovič’s photographs or scans are unrecognisable and incomprehensible in the usual narrative terms. The artists thus exposes the ambivalent nature of photography and visual culture in general as they both very often serve for the purposes of manipulation and consequently propaganda.
Written by Miha Colner